Chapter 2: The Hebrew Thought of God
Three great problems have possessed and perplexed the human mind since first man became self–conscious. True there were other problems–those of food and shelter, safety and procreation, sickness and death–which he shared and continues to share with the animals, but at some point he became aware of issues of which apparently there are no more than crude, embryonic apprehensions in the animal mind. He saw his physical environment as something more than a place for hunting and being hunted: it took on a character; it became a cosmos.
Here was the first question: what is the ultimate nature of the world ? That such world was primarily the region of the group’s habitat means little for our purpose, except as the limitation added to its mystery when distance beckoned in all directions into the unknown. Not are we concerned to trace the varying answers which successive of mankind advanced–the gods and devils and magic forces that make up the stuff of primitive faith. It is universally recognized that the long story from our earliest remains of human life onward through the great civilizations of the ancient east witnessed remarkable advances. The religions of Egypt and of Sumer and Babylon attained worthy concepts. But the important matter at the moment is that all this is but a phase of the perennial struggle of man’s mind to understand the ultimate nature of the world in which he finds himself.
The second question arose out of self-consciousness. Man discovered that “I am I,” then asked, “What am I?” The third problem is then obvious: somewhere about this time, if not indeed before his self-consciousness, man was confronted with the issue of the relations between the two entities, the world and himself. These three problems have persisted through all the ages; they are still with us. Doubtless what Cassirer meant, when he remarked that all philosophies are a philosophy of man, is to be discovered somewhere about this point. Perhaps too it is only a slight overemphasis to claim that all answers are the same answer, and that through the centuries man has merely sublimated and refined the answers which his most remote ancestors first vaguely apprehended. But if so, then we must recognize that differences of degree not uncommonly can amount to differences of kind. In this long course of discovery the Israelites’ attainments stand high. We turn first to their answer to the problem of cosmic mystery.
It was too early for science to assume a significant place in investigations of the nature of the physical universe. Presently a real astronomy (as distinct from astrology) had its beginning in Babylonia. Mathematics also made notable advances; the medical sciences were at home in Egypt, and engineering in both lands. But Israel’s thinkers were not pioneers in these directions. To the end, such science as they possessed was accepted uncritically from their great contemporary cultures. They lived in a completely geocentric world, with the heavenly bodies as subsidiary attendants commissioned to sprinkle down the various accompaniments of the changes of day and night and the succeeding seasons. It serves no useful purpose here to pursue the matter. It is apparent that all this is only incidental, in any case, to the real issue; for let the material world be what it may, does it evidence an intangible reality ? When the question is so framed, in its most significant relevance, the Hebrew thinkers have come into their own.
Israel’s great achievement, so apparent that mention of it is almost trite, was monotheism. It was an achievement that transformed subsequent history. Our indebtedness at this day is evident on a moment’s thought. With some entailment of that danger always implicit in superlatives, one may raise the question whether any other single contribution from whatever source since human culture emerged from the stone ages has had the far-reaching effect upon history that Israel in this regard has exerted both through the mediums of Christianity and Islam and directly through the world of Jewish thinkers themselves. Over against the polytheistic naturalism of Babylonia and the confused “consubstantial” ideas of the Egyptian pantheon, Israel affirmed, “The Lord our God, the Lord is one”; “All the gods of the nations are vanities, but the Lord made the world.” Traditional dogmas have robbed the Hebrew thinkers of their proper due through a doctrine of divine revelation which has lifted the achievement out of human categories of thought. But our function here, while not calling in question the former, is to show the reality of the latter and to appraise the achievement of Israel’s speculative thinkers.
The story of this achievement is one of the contentious issues of Hebrew history. Was Abraham a monotheist? Or did this concept come into Hebrew history with Moses? What was the faith of Samuel, of David, of Amos? On all such questions students of the Old Testament fall into diverse groups, although indeed there are few who would deny that in the patriarchal period the Hebrews were polytheists, as indeed the Bible explicitly states (Josh. 24:2; cf. Gen. 35:2-4). The issue centers about the faith of Moses; a considerable number insist that he was monotheistic in the full sense of the word, that there was no difference between his belief and that of the prophets. Others are equally emphatic that available evidence is of a contrary relevance, so that we must regard Israel’s knowledge of God as a great achievement which was won by centuries of struggle and came to clarity only through the stern discipline of chastisement that destroyed political independence and left the nation nothing but its intangible resources. A matter so strenuously debated is not to be settled by a few casual comments; yet certain facts and agreed opinions have in the heat of controversy received less than their proper attention.
The basic difficulty relates to our sources for the career of Moses. Notwithstanding all that archeology has done for us, and the careful reconsideration of accepted positions in study of the Pentateuch, it still remains that as historic source material the Pentateuch is at its best only hazy-and we have no other for the religion of Moses, except such light as subsequent events can reflect upon it. We may, however, safely concede–and dissidents are few indeed–that Moses was a great, creative, religious thinker and leader, assuredly not below the best of his time, and rather, in all probability, well beyond.
Now certain bold claims are made about the religions of the Orient in the time of Moses. It is said that they had attained practically to monotheistic thought; also that the concept of a cosmic god was widespread. But, the first claim dissipates under examination. The alleged monotheism of Babylonia, it has well been pointed out, is only a disguise of unrelieved polytheism, at its farthest outreach little else than pantheism. The prize example of non-Israelite monotheism is that of the “heretic” Pharaoh Akhnaton; yet Professor John A. Wilson is authority for the view that it was quite different from, and lower than, that which Israel presently attained. The Hymn of Akhnaton is striking, probably the most remarkable religious document from the ancient Orient outside Israel; yet Professor Wilson regards it as merely an expression of a sort of ancient “monophysitism.” The argument about “cosmic” gods comes close to a confusion of the problem. Certainly such notions were widespread; every primitive tribe the world over has attributed some sort of creation to its god–which is only another way of saying that it was wrestling with the first of the three great problems of which we have spoken. The cosmic gods of the Near East were commonly gods of the heavens, or else resident in the heavens. But what of it? Even when the point is fully conceded, the supposed conclusion is still several logical steps away. What the case demands is not a god of cosmic forces but one who is universal. There our evidence fails completely, even when we recognize that the term would of necessity cover much less than for modern geographic and astronomic knowledge.
Still, the case appears to be confused by a more basic error. It is quietly assumed that monotheism, per se, must be higher than polytheism, hence the higher religion of Moses must be monotheistic. But the Orient of that time was not thinking in such terms at all. This implies a developed philosophic speculation which lay yet many centuries in the future. The exaltation of Moses’ faith is to be sought in other directions, specifically that the God whom he taught was good (vague as the term must remain) and that in establishing close relations with the Hebrew people he made certain high demands upon their conduct. This belief could lend itself to monotheistic evolution, as it actually did if this premise is correct; but it was yet some distance short of the concept of a single God of all men everywhere.
It is quite out of the question to postulate monotheism of the crude conditions declared by our earliest authentic historical sources, the old stories in the Book of Judges. Even centuries later the thinking of Elijah and Elisha belongs more with the concept of a localized national God than with the thought of a single Ruler of all the world. In this period, it is true, the J writer, according to the generally accepted view, was penning his remarkable history, which, like every history worth reading, was also a philosophy. It is notable that in the account of Moses’ work in Egypt he gives no attention, except by a very slight allusion (Exod. 8:19), to the Egyptian gods, but instead represents Israel’s God as the supreme power, who had actually put Pharaoh on his throne (Exod. 9:16). Yet it is possible to exaggerate the meaning of this. The Lord had gone down into Egypt to deliver his people; hence consistency would demand just such relations with Pharaoh as are described. Moreover the entire account is reminiscent of the stories pervasive through the ancient Orient of intellectual and magical contest in the presence of a monarch. Moses, it should be recognized, is presented in the role of protagonist of Hebrew powers over against those of Egypt. Although we admit freely that none of the evidence may be lightly handled, yet the most probable view is that the notable contribution of Moses did not consist in the discovery and dissemination of a belief in a single God of all the world, but instead that monotheism was a crowning achievement of the prophetic age, wrought out in the very time when the brute might of Assyria was overrunning the world and threatening the extinction of Hebrew nationality.
However all this may be, even if we were obliged to qualify the belief that in the opening oracles of the Book of Amos we actually see Israel’s monotheism taking its nascent form right under our eyes, yet at least the passage reveals the sort of thinking that certainly at some time led to Israel’s great discovery. The words are familiar:
Thus says the Lord,
For three trangressions of Damascus and for four I will not turn back its punishment,
because they have threshed Gilead with threshing sleds of iron;
but I will send fire into the house of Hazael
and it shall devour the palaces of Ben-Hadad
And thus in reiterated phraseology the prophet moves round, as in the swing of a scythe of destiny, from Damascus to Gaza, to Tyre, to Edom and Ammon and Moab, before coming at length to his own people. It is the accepted critical view that the list has been somewhat expanded since Amos’ day; but the reduction so demanded does not affect the basic significance of the passage. Two things stand out for present consideration. Note how the accepted limitations of the thought of the prophet’s time have been ignored or transcended. Here is no little national god minding his own business strictly behind the borders or at most the military outreach of his own
people. Indeed, one may speculate on the absurdity of Amos’ position, as it must have seemed to his contemporaries, and most of all to the foreign lands here so boldly castigated by this peasant spokesman of a petty deity. What had the God of Israel to do with Damascus, the power that for a hundred years had wasted and ravaged his land, had enslaved and despoiled and brutally maltreated his people, while he looked on impotent? How well the “practical” men of the time might scoff! But indifferent to all alleged lack of realism and logic, Amos swept on round Israel’s land with words of rebuke for all these neighbor and enemy countries. Here, then, is our first observation: the “national god” concept is for Israel broken and discarded. The God of Israel is a being who has powers and responsibilities and authority over all the lands of Israel’s neighbors. We must admit notable exceptions from the list. There is nothing here about Egypt, not a word of Assyria or of Urartu, whichever seemed to Amos’ day the dominant power. The list concerns only the principalities round about Israel. But the prophet has gone too far to stop here; he has set out on a line of thought that has no proper boundaries short of attributing toYahweh universal rule. And, indeed, in further oracles of his book Amos introduces some nameless nation of his age in a role of divine judgment that implies the Lord’s dominion far out also into the midst of the great powers of the time.
But this in itself could be of little more significance than the oriental trends toward monotheism already mentioned. Monotheism in itself may be no more than despotism in religion. The great achievement of Israel was not primarily that she asserted the oneness of the world and of God, but rather the character of the God so affirmed. Amos’ thought goes beyond a mere implication of the supremacy of his God. The Lord’s coming punishment of Israel’s neighbors is for moral reasons. Damascus and Ammon have practiced barbarities in war; Tyre and Gaza have inhumanly sold whole peoples into slavery; and so the indictment runs on. Now, all these practices were standard, accepted conduct in the eighth century B.C. Once more the scoffer might have found occasion to jeer: this common peasant getting himself excited over what everyone was doing! The independence of Amos’ thinking here evidenced is of less importance for us, however, than his moral judgment. The nations are condemned for the depravity of their morals. And here is the point: they are so condemned in the name of the God of Israel! It is his righteousness, be it observed, not his might or his glory or any other of the divine qualities prized in the time, which provides the ground of his supremacy. Here we see the meaning of that phrase so commonly employed in the study of Hebrew history: Israel’s monotheism was an ethical monotheism.
Those who sat in the history classes of the late James H. Breasted will recall his treatment of the alleged solar monotheism of Egypt of the fourteenth century B.C. He pointed out that it came as the culmination of a century of Egyptian imperialism. In his phrase, this “monotheism was imperialism in religion.” The Egyptian sun worshiper leaving his narrow valley found the same sun shining not only in the hills of Palestine and Syria but also in the upper valley of the Nile beyond the traditional limits of Egypt; and so he was impelled to conclude that there was but one sun, hence, sun-god. It appears to be a comparable process that we see working itself out, first in the mind of Amos, and then becoming the accepted faith of all the prophets and later of the nation.
The standards of decency and honor and human compassion which were valid and prized among individuals in the little communities of Palestine did not cease their high demands when one stepped over the boundary into Syria or Philistia; but there alike men were human, with human needs and, consequently, with human standards. Amos would have denied emphatically the light assertion of Kipling’s nostalgic old soldier that “east of Suez” there “ain’t no Ten Commandments.” Indeed, in one famous passage which again witnesses the incredible vigor of thought of this simple peasant, Amos does more than imply, he asserts in unmistakable language the common human bond among diverse and remote races.
Are you not as the Ethiopians to me,
O children of Israel, says the Lord; Did I not bring up Israel
from the land of Egypt;
and the Philistines from Caphtor,
and the Syrians from Kir?
The Negroes of central Africa, and Israel’s two traditional enemies, the Philistines on one side and the Syrians on the other, as human beings stood on the same footing as the “chosen people” themselves. The passage is a valuable commentary on the judgments found in chapters I and 2 of the Book of Amos, for it might be claimed that some at least of these are partisan in their motivation–that Amos thunders his denunciations because his own people were the sufferers. But even in that list of divine judgments there are some that cannot be disposed of so lightly; and this utterance about God’s care of the Philistines and Syrians serves to corroborate what one may deduce there. The basis of Amos’ moral thinking is a sense of common humanity.
And this, it will be observed, is carried over into the concept of the nature of God: God utters his judgments upon cruelty and inhumanity. Now this is a line of thought that was to receive notable development in the course of time and to provide one of the distinctive aspects of the Hebrew outlook on the world. Notwithstanding the passages we have mentioned and others not less worthy of remark, Amos appears in the record we have of him somewhat as a stern moralist. He is a prophet of impending doom; he utters the judgments of God upon a careless and selfish people. Only at one or two points do his pronouncements leave room for argument that at heart he cherished a deep hope for the reformation and salvation of his people. But when we move on to his immediate successor, if not younger contemporary, all is changed. Though Hosea was not less concerned with the ruin that social selfishness was bringing upon the nation, yet his mood is emotional rather than judicial. He is a man of deep affection and tender motivation. It is he who has left for us that striking and charming picture of God as a loving father leading his people as though holding the hand of a toddling infant in its first uncertain steps:
I taught Ephraim to walk;
I took them in my arms…; with human bonds I drew them,
with cords of love
How shall I give you up, Ephraim; how shall I let you go, Israel?
My heart turns within me;
all my tenderness is kindled.
I will not perform my fierce anger,
I will not turn about to destroy Ephraim;
For I am God and not man
[Has. 11:3-4, 8-9].
We recall too, the famous passage with which the Book of Jonah closes. The ill-tempered prophet wanted the great city destroyed just to “save his face” as a predictor; but the Lord rebuked him. “Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hands from their left; and also many cattle?” (Jon. 4:11). One thinks as well of the words:
Like as a father pitieth his children,
so the Lord pitieth them that fear him. For he knoweth our frame;
he remembereth that we are dust
And the corollary and complement of all is represented by an equally famous passage, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy might” (Deut. 6:5). Here we see what may well be adjudged the culmination of Israel’s monotheistic achievement: the one God of the universe is a God of righteousness, but still more he is a God of love: “His tender mercies are over all his works” (Ps. 145:9). The significance of this in the long sequel of history a moment’s thought will suffice to show. And the revolutionary nature of Israel’s discovery becomes evident by study of the great religions of Egypt and Babylonia, dominant through Israel’s world, as well as of those of the lesser peoples of the time. All of them alike, to the question of the attitude of the gods toward mankind would have responded that while these could at times be most beneficent, their relation with man was on the whole little better than one of indifference. They had their own concerns, and only by special effort could they be induced to turn aside to the troublesome interruptions of mundane affairs. Here, it will be seen, we have come upon an aspect of the third of the great persistent human questions referred to above. It is said that a religious thinker of the past generation, when asked what inquiry he would make of the Sphinx if assured that it would answer truly just a single question, replied, “Is the Universe friendly to me?” It was a profound insight; for man’s most poignant question throughout all ages has been “What is my place in a world of immense and seemingly callous might?” And Israel’s great attainment was the vision that we may walk this earth with the confident tread of a son in his father’s house.
Much time has been expended upon detailing the attributes of Israel’s God; he was creator, sustainer, the source of all good, a God who spoke, who revealed himself, a God of judgment who brought just punishment upon the wicked, but also a God of forgiveness, a redeemer God–and so on. It is all quite good; and useful for those for whom it is useful. Yet all is comprised in the simple points we have suggested. For Israel, God was the ultimate reality, he was all power (though that is very different from the concept of omnipotence of later centuries), and he was good–not a being concerned with selfish interests, but his character was grace and love.
Implicit in monotheism is a movement toward transcendence. And in Israel’s monotheism it was inevitable. A God such as envisaged by Israel must be exalted in divine quality far above puny man, above this earth, and above all that is of the earth and earthy. A pregnant symbol of the many expressions of this throughout the Old Testament is the great vision of Isaiah; he “saw the Lord seated upon a throne high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above him were the seraphim . . . and one cried to another and said, Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory. And the foundations of the threshold shook at the voice of him who cried and the house was filled with smoke” (Isa. 6:1-4). Israel’s characteristic thought of God was that he was awful in holiness, terrible in righteousness. And on this side of the vast gulf in quality that separated him from the divine stood man, frail, mortal and sinful, whose best righteousnesses were, in the light of that pure countenance, “but as filthy rags.” This will make clear one reason why Israel abhorred apotheosis, whether of the king or of any other; for the Hebrew thinkers, God was in heaven, and man below. This provides also the basis of their concept of sin, on both of which topics more must be said presently.
Such, then, was the Hebrew view of the nature of the world. At its center there sat enthroned a Being of unutterable greatness and holiness, who was at once its creator and sustainer. But Israel never went the distance of abstracting this One into a cold and remote absolute. It is of the very essence of Hebrew thought that God is a person. The I-Thou relation in which primitive man saw his natural environment was maintained–no, rather, was sublimated–in Israel’s faith: the world was to be understood in terms of personality. Its center and essence was not blind force or some sort of cold, inert reality, but a personal God. And for them personality meant the sort of concept that they, and we, in turn, apply to human nature.
Now a person, so understood, can be in only one place at any one given time. Yet our uncertain ideas of extrasensory perception provide an analogy to Israel’s thought at this point; for God had, as it were, extensions of his personality so that he could reach out into many places. His proper abode was, for later thought at least, in the heavens, where he sat on a throne of majesty, surrounded by the host of his ministrants. But from him went out powers comparable with the later notion of emanations. By his spirit or by his word, he accomplished his purposes. And in the course of time still other mediums of his activity were conceived.
Yet, even so, the religious demand for the omnipresence of God was not met. In earlier times, it would appear, there was a belief in a sort of differentiation of localized manifestations of God. Thus Absalom, while in Geshur, vowed a vow to the Yahweh in Hebron (or so he claimed as part of his scheme of revolt) and, in course of time, went away from the official shrine in Jerusalem in order to pay this vow in Hebron. Such appears to be the implication also of the assurance that “in every place where I record my name I will come to you and bless you” (Exod. 20:24). It is difficult to see how in that time such local manifestations of the deity could fail to be credited with diverse qualities dependent on the nature of such manifestations and so to assume almost the status of separate personalities. It would seem, too, that we are to recognize a handling of the problem in the famous vision in chapter 1 of the Book of Ezekiel. It describes a remarkable structure on which the God of Israel came down out of the north along the road which his people had taken in their mournful journey into captivity; and there he, too, came seeking his lonely, heartsick exiles.
So far as this goes, then, it indicates that Israel’s answer was in freeing God of the limitations of fixed abode: He could leave his house and go where necessity of whatever sort called him. Yet it is apparent that such explanation will not take account of all Israel’s thought. For although to the devout, even of a later time, God was in his holy temple, yet he could and would hear the prayer of his people afar in Palestine or in the lands of the dispersion. Apparently this was in large measure accomplished by an extension of the divine personality or of the divine powers so that God could hear, see, and act at a distance which for man was quite out of consideration. For practical purposes of religious faith the result was not unlike the later concept of the immanence of God.
The substance and features ascribed to this cosmic Person are not clearly grasped; indeed, it is probable that Hebrew thought recoiled from the question. This at least seems certain, however, that the Person was conceived of as possessing a quasi-human form. There can be no doubt that such is the meaning of the account in the creation stories where man was made in the image of God; and a large number of other passages corroborate the view. Many of these are poetic and in their details must be discounted as mere symbolism; still so much is an irreducible minimum. But the divine substance is far from certain. It was a later teacher who declared that “God is a spirit”; yet the belief is not diverse from that of the Old Testament. But what was a spirit? It could flit about here and yonder, could suddenly appear or disappear, could exercise superhuman powers; but none of this is determinative, for we find that certain human beings could do the same. One thinks, for example, of the stories of Elijah and Elisha. For popular thought of our day, a spirit presumably is a personality without a material body. But it is far from clear that such was an ancient concept. We recall Paul’s discussion of spiritual bodies, apparently composed of some nonearthly substance (I Cor. 15:35-58). Whether, then, the Hebrews conceived of spirit as a finer kind of matter, as in certain strands of Greek thought, is not apparent. We find considerable use of the imagery of fire relevant to the person and appearances of God. Notable is the explicit statement in Ezekiel I :27. Still it would be bold to claim that Israel thought of God as possessing a body made up of some sort of celestial fire. And with that we must dismiss the problem.
However, another question comes into consideration at this point. In proportion as God is exalted in transcendent holiness and power, he is removed from human approach. A comparison with concepts of the manlike God of earlier time will make this clear. God came down and walked in the garden and talked with the guilty pair; he accepted Abraham’s hospitality one afternoon as he journeyed across the Judean hills; he informed Noah of the coming flood, and, when the latter had obeyed the divine warning and gone into the ark, he shut the door. Hosts of similar incidents will suggest themselves. Briefly, such a God was so close and approachable that one never knew at what casual moment, coming suddenly round a corner, he might meet him face to face. The significance of this for religious faith is obvious. But the transcendent God is liable to be thought of as remote, and furthermore, as preoccupied with his mighty concerns. How can frail man hope that such a one will be interested in the needs and hopes and fears of a tiny spark of animated dust? It is a problem that higher religion carries implicit in its advance. As man exalts God in transcendent quality, at the same time he pushes him steadily farther off from human need. It will serve the purpose of orientation for us to realize that to meet just this problem is one of the functions of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Obviously this was not the formulated solution of ancient Israel. Indeed Israel’s answer was diverse and complex. Consideration of it must be postponed a little.
Revolutionary as much of this was in the history of human thinking, yet, in surveying it, one is conscious of a certain impatience to get on to the basic problem that confronts us in this discussion: What were the processes of thought by which Israel came to such views? Rooted in the past as she was, intimately a part of the culture of the ancient world and heir of its thought, it is apparent at once that such wide divergence unavoidably implies bold and vigorous thinking, not by a few individuals, but by a long succession of them through the nation’s history. Our inherited doctrine of divine inspiration has functioned to obscure this inescapable conclusion. We must later take note of the understanding of this mystery that Israel’s own thinkers held, and we shall see that it effectively spans the gulf between the seemingly irreconcilable opposites of the dilemma. Israel could be the medium of divine revelation and yet could in the same act preserve her intellectual independence; indeed, only because of this independence could she be such a medium. For the moment, however, the important concern is the searching criticism which Israel applied to the thought that she inherited from and shared with her world. Creative skepticism was at home in this profoundly religious people. Here is the seeming paradox that a people, freely recognized as supremely the religious people of the ancient world, at the same time were without a peer in the power and scope of their critical intellectualism. But indeed it is not paradoxical, for religion that is not criticized quickly deteriorates into mere superstition. It was only by virtue of their skeptical mood that the Hebrew thinkers were able to attain a view of the world that still shapes our outlook.
This critical mood is well manifested in Israel’s attitude toward the pagan gods and their symbols. Although deeply dependent on the mythology of their contemporaries, the Hebrew thinkers yet came to repudiate the reality of the symbols in which these clothed the physical reality of the world. We know very little of the story, doubtless of protracted question and debate, that lies back of Israel’s attainment of this uniqueness in the ancient world. There is some reason to believe that it rests ultimately in a deep moral conviction. The religions of Canaan, ornate as they were with divine symbols in public worship and private shrines, were in large measure characterized by the features of so-called nature worship. And everyone knows what this has inevitably entailed. Canaanite worship of the forces of life meant public immorality as a sacred rite and commonly of a disgusting depravity.
It is true that Israel in considerable measure gave herself for a time to this as the accepted means of securing the increase of the fields and of flocks and herds; we recall the reiterated complaint that they “forgot the Lord their God and went after the Baals and Ashtoreth.” Yet there were, even in early times, and increasingly with the passing of the centuries, men who stood aloof and condemned the thing for the depravity that it was. It is such moral revulsion that speaks in the prophetic warnings and denunciations where we commonly meet the scathing summary of this whole system of religion: “On every high hill and under every green tree you prostrated yourself as a harlot” (Jer. 2:20). It was apparently, then, a deep ethical motivation that at length found expression in the dogma now familiar but in its cultural environment of astonishing radicalism: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image nor any likeness of anything that is in the heavens above or in the earth beneath or in the waters that are under the earth: thou shalt not bow clown thyself to them nor serve them” (Exod. 20:4-5). And, be it observed, the passage runs on, “For the Lord thy God is a jealous God.” All was gathered up in Israel’s theological uniqueness and in her consciousness of that uniqueness. The righteousness and holiness of God imposed upon the Israelite an exacting standard of action and thought and, in turn, revealed the depravity of pagan religion, however pompous or ancient.
Such is the mood that finds notable expression in a term somewhat widely employed for the pagan gods. In a number of cases we are told that they are “nothingnesses”–so we render the contemptuous word; but indeed it has common use as a normal term for foreign images: all alike, the gods and their symbols were nothing at all. It is now believed that the Hebrew word is an adaptation of a foreign one meaning god; and so we see how the Hebrew mind operated in relation to this matter: from foreign god to nothingness–they were intimately one and the same! However, what was here only implicit in a word was fully developed by the great prophet of the Exile, whom, for lack of better information, we call Second Isaiah. And such is the depth of the Hebrew conviction that he applies it to the most august gods of his time. With biting wit that might do credit to Lucian, he laughs the great gods of Babylon out of countenance. He had watched the sacred New Year procession; he had seen, for the pious but benighted Babylonian, a profound mystery taking place under the eyes of the beholder as Marduk and Nabu went out in solemn pilgrimage to the Akitu house, there to settle the fates of the incoming year; he had witnessed the annual festival in which Marduk triumphed over all his foes, cosmic and terrestrial, and himself died that life might once more return to the world. But this critical Jew saw, not the mystery of an ancient Mass, but a solemn farce: two great hulks of dead matter nearly breaking the backs of suffering brutes condemned to carry the weight of alleged gods!
Bel stoops; Nabu leans!
Their idols are on beasts, on cattle;
what you revere is loaded up,
a burden to the weary
Again, with like sarcasm, he ridicules the entire faith and vogue of idols: one cuts a tree for firewood, using it for heating and for cooking; but still a sizable piece remains, until as an afterthought it is given to a craftsman who, with a deal of labor, shapes it into a pretense of human form–and then men bow down to it and say, “Deliver me, for thou art my god!” (Isa. 44:9-17). What useful material is a stick of wood, he seems to say, You can cook your meals with it, you can heat your house, and, if any is left, you can make a god to which you may pour out the deepest aspirations of your soul! All alike wood!
Yet all such thought might well seem no more than a sort of sublimated national bigotry. The crucial question is whether Israel’s thinkers could apply the same rigid standards of criticism to their own inherited dogmas, in particular to those of the nature, attributes, and activity of Yahweh himself. Their intellectual attainment will be realized only when we admit fully, as the evidence demands, that Hebrew religion achieved freedom from an idolatry (to use a common term) similar to that of the rest of the ancient East–Yahweh was, through the earlier period of the nation’s life in Palestine, worshiped in physical form, just as Marduk or Amon or any of the rest of them in their lands. It argues much ,then, of the intellectual vigor and independence of generations of unknown Hebrew thinkers that still far back in the nation’s history the invisibility of Yahweh had become a dogma of the orthodox religion. In full repudiation of the power and mystic realism of symbols, a writer in Deuteronomy argues that even in the personal presence of their God, manifest in the great theophany on Sinai, no physical form was apparent, but only an invisible presence felt in power and in religious perception:
The Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire: ye heard the voice of words, but ye saw no form; only ye heard a voice. And he declared unto you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform. . . . Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves; for ye saw no manner of form on the day that the Lord spoke unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire; lest ye corrupt yourselves, and make you a graven image in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female . . . and lest thou lift thine eyes unto heaven and when thou seest the sun and the moon and the stars, even the whole host of heaven, thou be drawn away and worship them and serve them, which the Lord thy God hath allotted unto all the peoples under the whole heaven” ( Deut. 4:12-19).
How characteristic of Israel’s religion this feature became is so well known to us that its force is in danger of being blunted. But, for the contemporary world, it was heresy of the first order, such, in fact, as to set the Hebrews off as a peculiar people in a sense quite different from what their own thinkers boasted. An aspect of this is portrayed by a dramatic incident of a later time. When Pompey in 63 B. C. stormed Jerusalem, he forced his way into the Holy of Holies, much to the horror of the Jews, in order to see for himself what was the inmost secret of this unusual religion. And there he found–we all know what: nothing but an empty room! The perplexity of this leader from the image–ridden West, standing in the presence of a mystery that still evaded him, is a true symbol of Israel’s place in the ancient world: a place that might well be equally unique in the modern, save for our debt to Israel herself.
But Israel’s heterodoxy did not stop here. The very existence of her God came in for critical examination. Only so, it would seem, was the certitude of orthodoxy attained; when questions of his reality and his nature had been honestly met, then, and then only, could the best thinkers affirm: “All the gods of the nations are vanities; but the Lord made the heavens” (Ps. 96:5). The full story of this intellectual quest is not preserved; we are dependent in considerable part on casual allusions, but fortunately also we possess some more formal discussions of the problem. One familiar expression of the skeptical mood reveals a group of thinkers who had gone far to the left in their conclusions. The orthodox, as always, despised the skeptical as “fools”; and so we read, “The foo has said in his heart, There is no God” (Pss. 14:1; 53:1). Our accepted exegesis of this bold denial is that it means only a repudiation of divine activity in human affairs, since, so it is said, the Hebrews never doubted the existence of God. But surely such reasoning does little credit to our intellectual integrity; could there be a worse case of prejudging an issue? The words, both in English and in Hebrew, say as clearly as can be, “God does not exist.”
It is quite possible that these bold heretics arrived at their conclusion through a failure to see any evidence of divine participation in current affairs; but certainly they reached a denial of the reality of God. It may be that they anticipated modern atheists who see no need of a God, since the world is getting along tolerably well without one. Indeed, this is the implication of the criticism turned against them by the pious author of the psalm: when God looks down to see if there are any wise, he finds godless oppressors who “know nothing” and consequently “eat up (his) people as they eat bread.” Still, the writer proceeds, though these folk are subject to great terror, they lack wisdom–they cannot read meaning in their disturbing experiences. Then, as though thinking of unmistakable evidence of the reality of God, he concludes with a pious wish that the salvation of God would come out of Zion.
Comparable to this heresy are the musings of a thinker who relates his search for evidence on which to base the grandiose claims of orthodoxy, but all he found was emptiness and his own frustration. To understand the fine flavor of his barbed cynicism, we must attend even to his introduction in which, with assumed pomposity, he mocks the very words of prophetic announcements:
The words of Agur the son of Jakeh, the prophetic utterance, the oracle of a mere man, Le’ithiel:
Indeed I am a subhuman brute;
I have not the intelligence of a man.
I have not learned wisdom
nor attained knowledge of holy things.
Who was it that went up to heaven and came down again?
Who gathered the wind in his fist?
Who bound the waters in his garment?
Who set firm the limits of the earth?
What is his name, and what his son’s name?
For you know
Little need be said in exposition of the passage. It will be apparent how the writer scoffs, not alone at the prophets with their bold claim of direct knowledge of the unseen, but at the priests, who proclaimed proficiency in holy things, and at the wise men, also, with their confidence in intelligence and “wisdom.” By contrast all he will assert is his humanity; indeed, worse, he must be a brute, for he knows nothing of all these boasted attainments. But where, he asks, is empirical evidence for such claims? Who went up to heaven and saw all this with his own eyes? Then, listing the cosmic ascriptions with which orthodoxy loved to embellish the might of God, he poses the troublesome query: “Where is the objective evidence on which this imposing structure of faith (or credulity) is reared?” With biting irony he turns to his pious contemporaries, and, leaving them in full possession of the field of dispute as with a bow of mock humility, we can imagine, he asks simply: “You know the answer; won’t you tell me?”
Once more it is claimed that the writer does not question the reality of God. But, however that may be, he certainly denies the existence of any real knowledge of him. The term atheistic can be applied just as truly as to present-day humanists who refrain from denying the existence of God, but merely insist that nothing is known of him, hence a reasonable person will concern himself only with what is “this side of the clouds.” Similarly the Hebrew skeptic demanded sound evidence for the claims of current belief. As D. B. MacDonald comments, he “has his place in the purest rationalistic tradition.” It may be that his thinking is too materialistic; like the Apostle Thomas, he seems to say that only the evidence of the senses is valid. But, whatever uncertainty we may retain on details of his outlook, it is important to recognize his demand that religious thinking must be honest and subject to the same rigorous standards as any other reliable processes of thought.
But in all this we must not minimize the importance for our purpose of the besetting tendency in Israel to what is sometimes described as practical atheism, the denial that God concerns himself with human affairs, however real he may actually be. Everyone is familiar with such pervasive mood against which the prophet known as Malachi uttered his reproofs. In this case the public attitude expressed itself in habitual carelessness in the practice of the public rites of worship. Since God had not fulfilled the promises of the prophets to re-establish the Judean state, so the interpretation runs, the Jews in Jerusalem were swept along from disappointment to despair to infidelity. But it is important to realize that this was no new thing; the pre-Exilic prophets were obliged to take account of the same cynical mood. A brief but arresting passage occurs in connection with the work of Jeremiah. The people are quoted as saying: “It is not he, neither will evil come upon us, neither shall we see sword and famine” (Jer. 5:12). The situation is apparent. Jeremiah had warned them of impending disaster, at the same time arguing divine displeasure as the cause of present troubles. But they denied this facile interpretation. The course of events was following natural laws; the trouble was the might of Babylon and its aggressiveness–what need to bring the Lord into consideration at all? A hundred years before, the same skeptical mood was directed against Isaiah; he quotes his critics as jeering, “Let the plan of the Holy One of Israel come about so that we may see it” (Isa. 5:19)–they turned his own words back against him with the mocking comment, “We’ve been waiting a long time for something to happen.” But indeed something similar is to be said about the famous incident of Elijah at Mount Carmel: his effort was to convince a populace who disbelieved in the day–by–day interest and activity of Israel’s God. It becomes evident that a certain incredulity rooted so far back in Israel’s history that we may with some qualification regard it as a national characteristic. For all such mood and questioning, the prophets were obliged to find an answer. Of similar implication was the violent disagreement through the eighth and seventh centuries within the ranks of the prophets themselves, the canonical prophets denouncing their popular colleagues for false leadership, and the latter retorting in kind. A typical example is the public dispute of Jeremiah with Hananiah (Jeremiah, chap. 28), which entailed the problem of the ultimate authority and sanction of the prophetic utterance. The so-called true prophets seem to us commanding figures, and their pronouncements appear to have been turned off easily under divine inspiration, however we conceive that process; but it is important that we recognize the course of serious thinking entailed before they dared appear in public and announce themselves religious leaders. The attitudes and objections here sketched insured that intellectually, as truly as in other regards, it was no light matter to be a prophet of the Lord.
But the most famous skeptic of the Old Testament is the writer who, for lack of further information, we call by the title we have attached to his book. There is no denying that Ecelesiastes admitted the existence of a God. But what profited such a God–remote, selfish, indifferent, jealously watching the presumptions of troublesome man, and at the most conceding certain meager favors that served to redeem human life from stark intolerability? This is incidental, however. What we note is the free and frank doubt of orthodoxy which reveals itself in every chapter of his book. Over against it he sets up a philosophical system of cosmic determinisrn, a sort of universal wheel of time on which life and nature and history are forever wearily repeating themselves as often as the cycle of time brings round once more the things that have receded into the past.
Now it is clear, however we may regard such conclusions, that they are the outcome of vigorous, independent thinking. And the book shows unmistakably the nature of that thinking. Ecelesiastes tells us that he undertook certain experiments. He tried wisdom and folly; he investigated the seeming solace of wine; he gave himself to the pursuit of pleasure — but in all, he is at pains to assure us, his heart guided him in wisdom. Or, rendered in intelligible modern terms, he was prompted, not by the frivolity of the voluptuary, but by a serious philosophic purpose. He was conducting a scientific experiment upon himself, observing his own reactions and earnestly seeking through these experiences to find the abiding value, if any, that life possesses. And further studies were based on observation of the steady flow of events past his place of quiet reflection. It was because of what he saw in the widest survey of life that he concluded, “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” Actually this phrase–which many an unthinking person today bandies about glibly–contains a deeper implication not fully suggested by this common translation. The Hebrew word “all” here has the definite article. What Ecelesiastes says is that “the all”–that is, the totality of things, the entire purport of the universe — lacks meaning or value. Whatever may be thought of this conclusion, at least here is philosophy in the full sense of the term, though certainly not in its full scope as we have come to know it. But for the moment our interest is more in the philosopher’s methods than in either his results or the extent of his research. And what has been said leaves it abundantly clear that, admitting some unevenness in his application of the method, his thinking was of the sort that we have come to call empirical. He reasoned from observed facts.
The Book of Ecelesiastes is regarded as quite late. As a matter of fact, definite criteria of its date are meager. Nonetheless it is well to concede its late origin, in a time when the Jews were in touch with Greek life and when some of them had grown familiar with Greek thinking. How far, then, are we to discount the book as an example of Hebrew methods of thought? The answer would seem to be that we have for long put this sort of question on a false basis. We are steadily learning the debt of Greece to the Orient; and although no serious person could deny the opposite influence so long affirmed, still the greatness and the long course of oriental thought, in the full tradition of which Ecelesiastes stood, render it wiser to recognize that in his mental furnishing he was a thorough Jew, though it is undeniable that his thought was stimulated and, in some regards, shaped by the speculation of the West. His conclusions are not in the tradition of Jewish orthodoxy, but his type of mind and his methods are intimately a part of the questioning mood that had been at home in Israel for many centuries.
This will perhaps suffice to show the remarkably modern character of Israel’s mental equipment, though indeetl, as our discussion proceeds, much more that has relevance l)ere will come before us. However, we turn to the question that has been forcing itself on our consideration: What evidence could suffice for a people of such pronounced critical disposition to support their unique and astonishing religious beliefs?
Unfortunately for this purpose, the Hebrew thinkers, unlike the Greek, commonly left not so much a record of their processes of thought as of their conclusions. In particular this is true of those whom we may call the orthodox theologians. What information is provided, for example, of the basis of Abraham’s faith? Or of that of the author of the pentateuchal narratives in general? And the prophets were characteristically concerned to hurl their denunciations and promises in telling phrase such as might bring conviction rather than to carry their audiences along by reasoned processes to a desired conclusion. The apologetic for Israel’s faith thus does not lie on the surface. Still, if one will dig a little deeper, the facts will in some part presently reveal themselves.
Israel, we must keep in mind, was an oriental nation among the great nations of the ancient Orient. Their culture was the matrix in which hers was shaped. And it is to be borne in mind also that the religions of both Egypt and Babylonia find a ground of explanation in the physical conditions in which the peoples lived. The sun drenched valley of the Nile and the flooded plains of ancient Sumer both exerted profound influence in the molding of the outlook of ancient men for whom Egypt and Babylonia were the world and their forces the realities by which man must direct his life. A similar approach to the religion of Israel could prove fruitful. The rugged terrain of northwest Arabia, of which Syria and Palestine, it has sometimes been remarked, may be regarded as merely the largest and richest oasis, the numerous mountain peaks, the volcanoes apparently active at some period in ancient history, the desert with its speaking silences, the uncertainties of the weather in a land where all is dependent on the annual rainfall–all these and much more of the same sort are reflected in Israel’s religion. Of her earliest faith we cannot safely say more than that it was inherited and uncritically accepted from ancestors who had come, by the ways that have shaped the mind of primitive man, to a relatively high polytheism. And it is against this background that all her later speculation must be examined, just as we, too, however secular and objective we seek to make our investigation of the nature of the world and of man, have come to it through a long heritage of the past that accepted fully the personal explanation of the world. The problem, then, for Israel, just as for us, is not how she came to believe in the existence of the divine, but rather how her experiences shaped that belief and how her people supported it when they had arrived at some sort of intellectual self-consciousness.
A basic fact for Israel’s faith was the physical world. But here we encounter one of the prime distinctions between this nation and her neighbors. For Israel’s God rose out of, and transcended the status of, a nature-god. God and nature were intimately related, as the Babylonians and Egyptians also believed, yet for Israel they were nonetheless distinct and diverse. This may be described as a debasing of nature, since it remained no longer divine. Yet the actuality of Israel’s thought was rather the reverse. Nowhere in the ancient East do we find such sublime concepts and descriptions of nature as in Israel. It is more accurate, then, to speak rather of the sublimation of God and the elevation of nature as an expression of the divine power and activity. In reality the highest concepts of her neighbors are so fully carried over that one could easily confuse the situation and regard Yahweh as a God of mountain and earthquake and storm and fertility in just the same sense as for the others. His voice was heard in the thunder; he shook the world in earthquakes; his rain fell on the thirsty ground; he flashed abroad in the lightning; he was present in birth and increase. But the essential distinction is supplied by a Hebrew writer, who, though speaking of a single incident, employs language that is a symbol of all:
Behold the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, bu the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire.(I Kings 19 :1 I-I 2).
These were but “the whisper of his word, but the thunder of his power who might understand?” (Job 26:14). The point is obvious. God, for Israel, was supreme above nature and employed it for his purposes. However intimately related to natural phenomena, God was more than, and distinct from, them. For “after the fire” came “a still, small voice.”
Yet the intimate relation of God and the forces and phenomena of nature gives the latter a quality that one searches far to find, short of the English romanticists of the eighteenth century. All nature was the work of the Lord and visible evidence of his reality, of his power, and of his immediate participation in affairs of the world. Yet the notable skeptical mood of Israel insures that, though we cannot trace the process as fully as we would, still the argument was certainly subjected to steady re-examination and maintained its supremacy only after debate. Some of this we have already sketched.
A significant contribution to this line of thought came about through the experience of the deported Jews in the Babylonian captivity. Carried off from Jerusalem, which they had in their provincialism supposed to be one of the great cities of the world, and planted in the plain of Babylonia not far from the great imperial city itself, the exiles, when the first pangs of homesickness had passed, began to realize wonders and achievements of Babylonian civilization such as shamed their poor rustic culture. And, as time went on, the more open-minded learned of the pomp and magnificence of the religion of their captors and the might of supreme Marduk before whom, by the accepted test of arms, Yahweh’s puny strength had but mocked his people’s need. A mood of disillusionment, it would seem, set in and carried many of the Jews far along the road of assimilation and denial of their religious heritage. It was a larger world into which they had come.
For imperial Babylon lines of close communication led out eastward into Iran, of which the first captives had scarcely even heard and westward through Asia Minor to the Creek world. In the city itself merchants and governmental officials from the far ends of the known world might be met day by day. How petty and remote Judah and all for which it stood must have seemed to the ostensibly liberal-minded. And as a climax of aaa this impact of foreign culture that was slowly eating the vitals out of the Jewish faith was the fact that at just this time the Babylonian study of the heavens was attaining the status of a real science. Before the astonished Jews there was unfolded a world of immensity, of wonder, and of regularity such as to render ludicrous the traditional claim that Yahweh, god of the tiny land of Palestine, had made not alone the sun and moon but the host of the stars also.
Here we meet, certainly not the first interrelation of science and religion (for that reaches back into the very beginnings of man’s thought about the world), but one of the earliest clashes of the two, in a form much like what has been familiar right to our own day. Indeed, these very considerations arose within our own times relevant to recent disclosures of astronomy. But how could they be met in the sixth century B.C.? Did the Jews abandon their faith for the new–found false messiah, science? Certainly not the best of them! Did they retire into intellectual isolation and refuse to admit the findings of science? Did they satisfy themselves with reaffirmation of ancient dogmas? Not at all. It is again an index of their intellectual vitality that instead they met the problem with high courage, recognized the validity of the new knowledge and its destructive implications, and then, embracing the facts, rebuilt their faith on a new and better basis into a greater religion than it was before.
Fortunate it was that there lived among these perplexed people the great poet–thinker Second Isaiah. He realized that the difficulty was inherent, not in the character of Yahweh, but in the unworthy thought of him which his people held. Seizing boldly on the very findings of science which were sweeping more tender minded Jews off their feet, he claimed that, far from nullifying faith in Israel’s God, these were but evidences of his greatness and of his reality. For God was maker and master of the physical universe. “Lift up your eyes on high and see who hath created these things, that bringeth out their host by number; he calleth them all by name; great in might and strong in power, not one is lacking” (Isa. 40:26).
However, already familiar elements of the cosmological argument also received fresh and vigorous handling by Second Isaiah. It was not merely the enlarged world of his time that impinged on his consciousness with fresh conviction, but in a mood very much like that of the philosophic scientists of today he adduced the consideration that the ordered world declares its origin in a universal mind.
Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand,
and hath meted out the heaven with the span,
and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure,
and weighed the mountains in scales
and the hills in a balance?
Who directed the spirit of the Lord?
With whom took he counsel?
Who. . . . taught him knowledge
and showed him the way of understanding?
This was evidently a real contribution to Israel’s thinking, for in a later age the wisdom writers turn frequently to it as a favorite theme, and in particular it serves as the basis of the lengthy dissertation upon the transcendent intelligence of the divine that is put into the mouth of the Lord in the latter part of the Book of Job.
Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Declare if thou hast intelligence.
Who determined its measures?–if you possess knowledge.
Whereupon were its foundations fastened?
Or who laid its cornerstone? . . . . Host thou commanded the morning since
thy days began, and caused the dayspring to know its place? .. . .
Where is the way to the dwelling of light?
And as for darkness, where is its place? . . . .
Canst thou bind the cluster of the Pleiades or loose the bands of Orion?
Knowest thou the time when the wild goats of the rock bring forth?
Or canst thou number the months that they fulfil?
And so this lengthy survey of the complex interaction of animate and inanimate creation runs on. It will be noted that, in part, this is a mere disparagement of human knowledge: that the world contains much more than mortal mind can compass. But basic to the discussion is that it treats of the wonders of the infinite intelligence which not alone established these wonders but holds them in their proper relations.
It is important to realize that Second Isaiah wrote with conscious recognition of the problem of apologetics; he took up the issue specifically and of set purpose. It is a sort of undertone running through his poems. He treats it relevant to the claims of the great contemporary pagan gods; but this does not alter the point of prime interest, namely that he was answering the question “How can man know rationally that God exists and that he is the sort of being which Jewish tradition claims him to be?” To this end his favorite device is to picture a cosmic assize in which Yahweh is at once plaintiff and judge; he advances his arguments and introduces his witnesses and then challenges the defendants to make out their case. But at this point only silence ensues; and the decision goes toYahweh, not by default, but by the demonstration of the complete powerlessness and inanity of the others. And Yahweh’s argument, in addition to what we have already noted, is that he has been operative in history and still is the vital force in the affairs of men. Notwithstanding certain new features which were introduced into this consideration, it is important to recognize that Second Isaiah is here but applying an opinion that was very old among Israelite thinkers. It had received notable expression by Isaiah a hundred and fifty years before in his bold claim that the God of Israel was using the Assyrians for his great purposes. But it was not uniquely his; for it is the theme running throughout the Old Testament. The Hebrew thinkers, with a penetration that might have spared some later thought its worst blunders, recognized that the meaning of the world can be understood, if at all, only in the light of, and by inclusion of, human life, which is its highest expression. For them “the proper study of mankind was man.”
This is peculiarly the field of investigation of the wise men. They were primarily students of human life from the ethical and metaphysical point of view. In their age-long investigation, carried on by successive generations of scholars, history and society provided facilities in a sense comparable with those offered in modern scientific experimentation. It is scarcely an exaggeration to claim that they were empirical, though admittedly the method had not yet come to self-consciousness and hence could easily fall below scientific strictness or give way to traditional dogma. Nonetheless, their activity is in itself demonstration of the keen intellectualism of ancient Israel and the distance this people had gone in methods of sound thinking. The wise men sought to evolve codes of conduct that might conduce to the accepted ideal of the good life, but as well they saw everything taking its place in a continuing stream of action and history which was leading on to determined results in the divine purpose. This very alluring topic we abandon with cursory comment, to take it up at more length a little later. However, a related aspect of the topic has already been mentioned and calls for some orientation at this point. We took occasion to note that Amos’ thought of the universality of God was in some way dependent on his sense of a common human standard of right and wrong. It is clear, then, that in this was one of the fruitful sources of Israel’s convictions as to the being and nature of God. The universality of the human regard for those higher qualities which the Hebrew gathered up in the concept of righteousness found rational explanation best in a cosmic origin which some modern thinkers describe as a Process; but, for the Hebrew mind, that Process was personal. In the unceasing human striving from the good to the better, in the contempt of the base and mean, in the universal homage to the true and noble and unselfish, there was, for Israel’s thought, just as for ours, a profound mystery that compelled speculation to venture beyond the immediate and tangible, out into the region of cause and nature and being. Israel’s thinkers concluded that here is the ultimate revelation of the character of God: He is righteousness and truth.
In addition to the argument from the wonders and the apparent intelligence of the world, and from the course of human history, past and future, as he believed it might he calculated, Second Isaiah had one other consideration which is presented with such brevity that there is danger of reading into it perhaps more than he meant. In his favorite figure of a great court scene, he has the Lord in several passages say of Israel, “You are my witnesses” (Isa. 43:10, 12; 44:8). The context in some measure may suggest that he is thinking of Israel as the recipient of God’s bounty and his notable interventions in her history, of which now she could testify. Yet though this may be uppermost in the passages, the further concept cannot be absent that Israel can testify out of her whole knowledge of God. However that may be in these passages, it is certain that such consideration came to have force in Jewish thought. A psalmist exclaims, “0 taste and see that the Lord is good”; again:
The iudgments of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether
More to be desired are they than gold, yea than much fine gold
Sweeter also than honey
and the droppings of the honeycomb
O how I love thy law; it is my meditation all the day (Ps. 119:97).
And this is but the merest sample of the immense bulk of such utterances that one might excerpt from the Psalms and other poetry of the Old Testament. The devout Israelite felt and knew that in his experience of his God he had a treasure of the rarest quality. And in this, finally, it would appear, he found the proof of the reality and the goodness of the Person whom his traditional faith postulated as the center and meaning of the physical universe It is apparent that the question of the validity of such thinking comes into consideration. Did the Hebrew ever go behind his processes of observation and thought to question their finality ? But this question we can take up more effectively as part of Israel’s whole understanding of human life.
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